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Vector and Raster Images: The Differences
Whether you’re designing for print or the web, choosing how you draw your images can make a huge difference in how you can distribute your designs. Digital drawings can be classified in two different ways: vector or raster. This article explains the differences between the two and how it affects you as a designer.
A vector image is an algorithm-based drawing method, which in simple terms means that it is drawn with mathematics. The official definition via Wikipedia is “…the use of geometric primitives such as points, lines, curves and shapes or polygons, all of which are based on mathematical expressions, to represent images in computer graphics.” It has many different uses in several industries including architecture, engineering, and graphic design.
Vector images have a few very important advantages in design. For example, because a vector file does not need to save the color and location of every pixel in an image, the files as a whole are generally smaller than other image types. This is because a vector image only needs to remember specific details about an image, such as the position of points, lines, and fill.
Second, since vector drawings are created using algorithms, it is possible to resize images without losing resolution. This is possible because the only things that change when you enlarge or reduce an image are the numerical values that give your image its shape and color. So, no pixelation!
Sounds pretty good, right? Well, there are downsides. For example, vector images should be kept relatively simple to work well. You won’t make the Mona Lisa using vector! So if you want one of your designs to have high amounts of detail that uses many different color values, vector is not a good choice.
So, what is it for ?
Very important things. For example, if you want to do branding, merchandising or advertising, your company or personal logo will be printed on many different media in many different sizes. To make sure it looks exactly the same on everything, whether it’s the size of a quarter or the size of a house, you need to make sure it’s drawn in such a way that printers can efficiently resize your image.
Some of the most common file extensions for vector images are .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .eps (Encapsulated PostScript), and .pdf (Portable Document Format). Some popular file types, such as .ai or .pdf, require specific software to view, while others are more forgiving. For a complete overview of all extensions and their uses, click here.
Raster images are very different from vector images. Most of the images you find on your computer and on the web are raster images. From photos taken by your camera to doodles you create in MS Paint, they are all produced and saved as raster images. So what are they?
Raster images are produced by blocks (pixels) of color. You have already seen it. If you zoom in on an image, you’ll likely see individual colored squares making up the image as a whole. It’s an effective way to create highly detailed images, as it allows for impressive resolution with any combination of the thousands of colors your monitor is capable of displaying.
However, all of these details must be recorded in some way. Raster images can create very, very large files. Each pixel can have a different value, and these values add up to the overall file size. Without using compression on large, detailed images (or even with it!), it can be difficult to store and send your high-resolution images to clients, printers, or even the computer next door.
So, what is it for ?
For any use where your images don’t need to be resized in the first place. They are best for web design, concept art, digital paintings, and more. As long as you create your image at the correct scale, it can and will print beautifully. Another thing that is a huge plus is that they are easy to create. If you have an artist’s eye, you can paint an image or edit a photo much faster than it would take to meticulously recreate an image in vector. There are many popular programs designed for this purpose, such as Adobe Photoshop.
Some of the most common raster image extensions include .jpeg (Joint Photographic Experts Group), .bmp (Windows Bitmap), and .png (Portable Network Graphics). Most are forgiving and can be opened by many different programs.
This is just a very brief overview of vector and raster images. There are many good sources of information to help you learn more, including communities such as the Graphic Design Forum that can help you with anything you need. Remember that the best way to learn anything is to experiment. You may not know the right questions to ask until you play and come across a problem to solve! When you do, myself and countless other designers are always there to help.
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